Saturday, August 18, 2007

The myth of winning hearts and minds

Last week, in a Boston Globe op/ed, Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state, wrote that the battle for Afghan "hearts and minds" is in danger of being lost because of rising civilian casualties and war damage.” The key to winning the people’s support he claims “is reconstruction and development (jobs, roads, water, and electricity), rather than military power alone.”

Inderfurth based much of his analysis on a British report published last month. As if the British army itself was directly reinforcing his case, the day after his op/ed appeared NY Times reporter Carlotta Gall claimed that a unnamed senior British commander in Afghanistan “had asked that American Special Forces leave his area of operations because the high level of civilian casualties they had caused was making it difficult to win over local people.”

Another of their commanders, Maj. Dominic Biddick, “has a $5,000 good-will fund and hands out cash to victims he comes across” and “has $10,000 a month to spend on community assistance programs.” He told Gall “If you are genuinely caring, you can win friends.”

Obviously the US and British military are in a struggle is to keep the civilian in population Afghanistan (and Iraq) from becoming supportive of those who have chosen to resist the occupation. It is in this light that “winning the hearts and minds” has become the oft stated military strategy focused on humane goals.

A lot has been written about the mistakes made early in the Iraq war as US forces failed to consider this as primary strategy for winning the peace there. The opportune time was supposed to have been soon after Saddam’s regime had collapsed and our troops took control of Baghdad. But in Afghanistan we had much more time before the “insurgency” there gained any strength, so what went wrong? Perhaps it’s not the delay of tactics, but that the tactical is not compatible with the heart.

Inderfurth’s notion of building friendships is drastically different than the British officers. He is not on the ground, and the abstract idea is based on visions from his life history, of which there is no military experience to speak from. This is not to belittle his credentials in international relations. Intellectually are seeds of genuine concern, but they're not rooted in any real bonds fostered between human hearts.

The first evidence of something more amiss though comes from the suggestion that military power has any role at all in building friendship among people in another country. This drift reveals a statesman overly sensitized to his own persona, one where speaking truth is secondary to supporting government policy, which all too often has hidden agendas.

Turning to the British for advice might seem sensible, especially in the context of addressing civilian casualties. But even here the building of bonds between human beings is immediately compromised by his use of the word “minimize”, quietly qualifying the common rhetoric of “collateral damage” as a necessary fact that some “hearts and minds” don’t matter.

The British officers in Afghanistan are intimately closer to the trauma felt by Afghan survivors. The empathy they feel may well have origins in their own heart. The question remains as to how close are they to touching the soul of these innocent victims. What does a commander like Biddick do after he hands out the cash?

The military role of policing the neighborhood is not remotely similar to victim advocates who spend hours and days counseling the unfortunate. Neither country is winning friends. Instead our troops will leave behind a nation of PTSD victims who have far less resources to cope with the long term emotional trauma than the inadequate programs available to our returning vets.

Withdrawing from the scene as the troops eventually will we find ourselves back to Inderfurth and eventually at the policy makers in Washington DC. Here in our own country we often complain that politicians are out of touch with the common working American. This gulf must swell wider when reaching across the seas to a Muslim land accustomed to a socialist economy.

Inderfurth’s intellectual conviction exemplifies a hubris similar to the White House’s certainty that our military might is invincible. Both are germs carried in the wind of a collective ego of American exceptionalism.

The best relations are founded in trust and respect, which begin with genuine listening. In Afghanistan and Iraq, as long as our airstrikes, big guns and house to house raids continue, it ought to be clear that our forces cannot hear the hopes and dreams of a people whose culture we don’t honestly understand. Their voices are downing under the flood of deceit, delivered as orders from politicians in far away places.

Severing the word “winning” from “hearts and minds” is essential to seeing through the rhetoric. Conquest shows no affection to friendship.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The war in Iraq didn't bring the bridge down in Minneapolis

First of all, the Minneapolis bridge collapse represents a true tragedy for those who lost loved ones or were seriously injured. For them, the story that immediately became national news is personal. It will always be.

Make no mistake, the nation’s tax dollars would be much more meaningfully spent maintaining our highways and bridges than the way Bush and Congress have squandered billions in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are dozens of other programs that would greatly benefit if indeed the money was still to be spent somewhere when Bush stops chasing failure further down his rabbit hole in Iraq.

Yet I have to argue that it is a serious misrepresentation to even suggest the collapse is the fault of the Bush administration.

The day after the collapse, John Nichols wrote in The Nation “an obsessive focus on warmaking abroad leaves a trail of death, destruction and decay in the U.S.” In a piece written for the progressive website, attorney and peace activist Tom Turnipseed chimes in: “Unsafe highways, bridges and driving are a genuine terror threat to us all.

There are criticisms about the nation’s priorities and tax structure within both stories that are certainly valid. That’s where the hype needs to end.

The quote by Turnipseed that referenced The Center for Strategic and International Studies first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Comparing the portion of federal, state and local spending from the 1960s is very misleading. The fact is that the federal aid portion for bridge replacements and major rehabilitation is 80% for bridges that qualify according to their condition rating.

It’s that label “structurally deficient” which comes from the condition rating that has been mostly seriously misunderstood since the bridge collapse. The numbers of structurally deficient bridges across the country have been all over the news because the Minneapolis bridge carried that label for many years.

As a former bridge inspector who also spent one year assessing all of Washington State’s highest priority bridge needs, I can attest to two facts. The term structurally deficient has little to do with the actual urgency of any bridge replacement or repair. Any bridge deemed unsafe for use after an inspection would either be closed immediately or emergency repairs would be ordered. The term is merely a generalization, and in more than a few instances, highway departments stretch the definitions to get federal funds when the driving force behind a bridge replacement has nothing to do with the structural condition.

And the ability of even the most qualified inspectors will never be enough to prevent some tragic collapses from happening. In a program that defines inspection frequency in terms of one or two years, it is nearly impossible for an inspector to be on site at the right time to discover the kind of serious flaws that might progress to such points. A degree of negligence may on rare occasions play a role, but more often than not the mistakes are innocent. They are mistakes because that which we can't know is relegated to the best judgment available, which is experienced based on the thousands of other situations that weren't mistakes.

The 1983 collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Connecticut is one example of a failure that led to new and more rigid inspection requirements. That steel bridge also lacked redundancy. A corrosion induced crack of a steel pin connection that could not be accessed for a complete visual inspection caused the failure. Yet even with new ultrasonic testing equipment and methods there is no guarantee that such serious flaws will be detected.

The Schoharie Creek Bridge collapse four years later on the New York Throughway delivered the transportation community new lessons on bridge scour. More improvements were made to the national bridge inspection program. But it remains incredibly complex and difficult to examine the scour under a bridge pier when it is most critical, which happens to be during the worst periods of flooding.

Part of the point here is that older bridges aren’t any different than any engineered product, be it automobiles, airplanes, buildings, or pipelines. In our nation’s rush to build a world of mass convenience to facilitate our habits of mass consumption, there is a blindness to tomorrow that is related to using materials and design theories that are the best available at the time. No one can possibly gauge the magnitude of the future problems we create when the rush to build more and bigger, wider highways is always ahead of us.

Despite the American Society of Civil Engineers' report card that rates bridges a “C” (higher than all but one of the 15 categories), one must remember that every profession has its lobby. Engineers imagine a perfect world today from the present technological point of view. More, bigger and wider is work to an engineer, and that is especially handy for extracting their piece of the taxpayer pie to support their same mass consumption habit that none of us can afford to ignore.

In an ideal world, Nichols new slogan “No More Collapses” is an admirable goal. But our cultural vision of the ideal world would ask that we all escape premature death by being protected from every conceivable kind of accident, crime, disease and even natural disaster.

Which brings me to my second point. Sometimes planes crash, buildings burn, and bridges fall. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California magnify the reality that often yesterday’s public works projects were prematurely declared successes. Time is the only true arbiter and judge for many of our engineering accomplishments.

If we look at all the evidence before we judge the present situation as a negligent failure that reveals an imposing threat to our way of life, what we’ll find is that the initial reaction needs to be tempered with caution and an overall societal responsibility. Ranting about “the war against the transportation terror in our own back yard terror” reeks of political opportunism. It is a mistaken departure from seeking the truth.

We can’t ask and shouldn’t expect the government to protect us from all possibility of death in the air, on highways, or in buildings. If we as antiwar activists honestly believe that Bush sowed the seeds of fear to sell his war and turn the country into a police state, then we mustn’t stoop to his level of abusing the truth by trying to mobilize new fears so that we can blame the administration for this tragedy. We have to be truthful first and foremost or we become like them.

by Rich in Juneau